Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Thousands gathered at his memorial and many more rallied across the U.S. to honor King’s commitment to civil rights and non-violent action. His message continues to resonate in a nation that has never ceased to struggle with complex issues related to race, gender, sexuality, religion, and so on.
While the Land of the Free is invested in honoring King’s death, we could instead be focused on how he lived. As Rev. Jesse Jackson explains,
He mobilized mass action to win a public accommodations bill and the right to vote. He led the Montgomery bus boycott and navigated police terror in Birmingham. He got us over the bloodstained bridge in Selma and survived the rocks and bottles and hatred in Chicago. He globalized our struggle to end the war in Vietnam. How he lived is why he died.
It seems that we have “whitewashed” King’s memory by ignoring the backlash he experienced throughout his activism. His assassination made him a martyr; however it has also muddied our recollection of his life. We no longer acknowledge the incredible injustice that King faced himself as a leader for civil rights, nor the exhaustion he felt in realizing that racism is embedded in every fabric of American society. We do not discuss that toward the end of his life 63% of Americans disapproved of King’s work; that civil rights were called un-American and King was called a communist. Instead we have watered down his activism and obscured his controversial aspects in favor of a less complicated civil rights leader. In doing so, America distorts his legacy and refuses to admit that our nation’s white psyche sentenced King to death.
King had been exiled, and once he became a blood sacrifice, white America made him a martyr and pawn in the political arena. As Eddie Glaude, Jr., explains,
…over this half-century his bones have been picked clean. Conservatives invoke his name in defense of their vision of a color-blind society. Liberals use him to authenticate their own politics. Black politicians yoke his legacy to their own ambitions.
Toward the end of his life, King became disillusioned as he recognized the uncertainty of his vision for racial justice. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote that democracy in America is impossible as long as white supremacy stands in its way.
Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America … proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap–essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it.
Sadly, little has changed fifty years later.
The election of Donald Trump has emboldened racism, sexism, and overall bigotry. From police shootings of unarmed black men and women to Charlottesville, white supremacy continues overtly and without apology.
In response, movements persist that are inspired by King’s life and demand an end to grave injustice. Black Lives Matter, The Women’s March, and The March for Life are examples of the way King’s call for social justice is resurrected. And yet, our nation rejects them in a similar way that it did the Civil Rights Movement.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) has been called divisive and is accused of being responsible for violence against whites and police officers. In an effort to reclaim power, Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter have been used to invalidate a movement that acknowledges the value of African Americans. And some, including Mike Huckabee, have demanded that BLM be more like King. It is not only disappointing that Huckabee and others do not recognize the connection between BLM and the Civil Rights Movement, it is also deeply disturbing that King is misused to call for the silencing of those who are demanding racial justice.
During his speech after being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
King stared down evil, and although he sometimes felt defeated, he rose back up to continue the demand for justice. While backlashes continue for those who march today, we must honor King’s life and recognize that we have a responsibility to act in the face of adversity. We must confront the social injustice that exists and refuse to stand silent by the sidelines. As human beings, it is what we are called to do. And King is a lived example of how to do it.
If you can’t fly, then run.
If you can’t run, then walk.
If you can’t walk, then crawl,
but by all means, keep moving.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, and activist. She serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is Co-founder of FeminismandReligion.com. Messina writes for The Huffington Post, and is author or editor of 5 books including Women Religion Revolution and Jesus in the White House. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the world. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.